When Art Is Dangerous (or Not)

The only time art ever seems to make news here in the West anymore is when a Pollock or Warhol sells for a sum commensurate with the budget of a “Transformers” film. It seems bizarre, then, to find ourselves grappling with international crises in which art is the issue: the imbroglio involving the Sony movie “The Interview,” the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The incomprehension, whether bemused or horrified, that we feel toward people who take up arms against the creators of cartoons or comedies is a chastening reminder that there are still cultures in which art is not a harmless diversion or commodity, but something real and volatile, a potential threat to be violently suppressed. These attacks are, in a way, a savage, atavistic show of respect.

I was a cartoonist for The Baltimore City Paper from 1997 to 2009, so I well know what influence a political cartoonist wields in this country. The last time art had any real-world effect on United States politics was about 140 years ago, when Boss Tweed was not only driven from power by Thomas Nast’s caricatures of him but ultimately arrested after he’d fled to Spain, where he was recognized from those same cartoons.

Much as I admire Steve Bell’s caricatures of George W. Bush as a dung-flinging chimpanzee, it’s hard to imagine them landing the former president in The Hague. Most daily editorial cartoonists in the United States produce work about as incisive as a prime-time sitcom, and the rest are consigned to niche markets where they preach to their demographic choirs. I have to wonder whether any of my colleagues felt the same queasy mix of emotions I did on hearing about the assassinations in Paris: beneath the outrage, sorrow and solidarity, a small, irrational twinge of guilt that we’re not doing anything worth shooting us over.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. likened the cumulative firepower of all the art and literature directed against the Vietnam War to “the explosive force of a very large banana-cream pie — a pie two meters in diameter, 20 centimeters thick, and dropped from a height of 10 meters or more.” A lot of artists in America tend to be self-deprecating futilitarians, because we’ve grown up in a culture in which art doesn’t matter except, occasionally, as a high-end investment. When art has been controversial here it’s most often been because it’s deemed obscene. (Sex is our tawdry Muhammad, the thing that cannot be depicted.) But it’s hard to think of a time in our recent history when art gave any cause for alarm to anyone in power.

It’s a testament to the brittleness and fragility of ideologies like the thuggish cult of North Korea and the more homicidally literalist sects of Islam that they react so violently to art most Westerners regard as silly and trivial: dumb comedies, crude cartoons. North Korea saw “The Interview” as some sort of invidious state-sponsored attack on its revered leader, the cinematic equivalent of a dirty bomb. It was almost endearing; you wanted to explain to them, No, see, in our country, this is stupid art. We weren’t even going to go see it in theaters until you threatened to bomb them; we would’ve waited for it on instant streaming. Some part of the international reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was this same kind of condescending incredulity: Wait, this was about cartoons?

It speaks well of our own relatively flexible system that it can accommodate criticism and dissent without lopping anyone’s hands off. But this is also a backhanded testament to our society’s successful denaturing of satire, and the impotence of art in our own culture. Autocrats from Plato on have advocated control and censorship of the arts to ensure the stability of their states and micromanage their people’s inner lives. In the mature democracies of the West, there’s no longer any need for purges or fatwas or book-burnings. Why waste bullets shooting artists when you can just not pay them? Why bother banning books when nobody reads anyway, and the national literature is so provincial, insular and narcissistic it poses no troublesome questions?

The real Machiavellian genius of the First Amendment is that free speech turns out to be mostly harmless — a lot of P.C. nit-picking, dingbat conspiracy theories, tedious libertarian screeds and name calling. The only “free speech” that has any effect in a stable, well-run plutocracy is the kind protected by Buckley vs. Valeo in the form of campaign contributions.

American capitalism has its own ingenious system for neutralizing or absorbing dissent: Any art that challenges its fundamental assumptions, its inevitability and rightness, is either ignored, so the artist has to tend bar or learn graphic design, or, if it becomes successful, lavishly rewarded and painlessly welcomed into the system it criticized. As systems of oppression go, this is definitely the one you want to suffer under. I’m relieved to live in a place where the worst thing I have to worry about is being called names on the Internet. Getting paid only 20 bucks a week for my political cartoons was kind of insulting, but at least I wasn’t forced to eat them at gunpoint.

I’m relieved to live in a place where the worst thing I have to worry about is being called names on the Internet. And I don’t mean to romanticize what happened in Paris: It was obscene and stupid and sad. And yet there is also occasion for pride in it, the kind of somber pride any soldier is entitled to feel in a comrade’s sacrifice. It is a reminder that art is not a frivolous diversion, not just a product or “content.” It is still alive and dangerous, and still hated and feared by those most deserving of our mockery.

A lot of people are calling the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo “heroes,” which it’s hard to imagine happening while they were still alive. (Would Seth Rogen be one if the North Koreans poisoned him?) But if grown-ups are going to use a word as childish as “hero” at all, then I’m afraid we may have to apply it, now and then, not only to those uniformed few who control drones from Langley or Vegas or bust teenagers selling weed on the street but also to silly, irrelevant people like cartoonists.

Last week, we quietly added a few more names to the roll call. And tonight, in the real ceremony, my colleagues and I will salute them with the traditional instruments of our trade — glasses raised around tables in the bars and cafes and tea houses of the civilized world. And, after a few, we’ll do what cartoonists do — make cruel, gleeful fun Islamic wackos and right-wing bigots, opportunistic politicians and useless cartoonists, absolutely everyone. No one will be spared.

Tim Kreider is the author of We Learn Nothing, a collection of essays and cartoons.

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